NASHVILLE SCENE - album review
Crazy for Trying
Lee Ann Womack, country radio and the 't' word
By Michael McCall
Lee Ann Womack's new single, "Last Call," could be a reply to George Jones' "I Always Get Lucky With You." In both, a guy who habitually ends his nights in bars tends to phone the same woman at closing time. In Jones' song, he characterizes the moment—in his bluest, most slurring tone—as a lifeline that saves him from further descent. Womack knows the woman would see it differently.
In Womack's song, when the guy calls, the woman recognizes the number on her caller ID. Only this time, she doesn't answer. Instead, she visualizes the scenario: The bartender just announced it was closing time, and the guy is cradling a final glass of Johnny Walker Red as he realizes he's going home alone. So he dials her number, because, as she sings, "I'm always your last call." The lyrics eventually turn the phrase around, as the woman promises herself that this indeed will be his last call—at least to her.
Womack performs the song with sensitive restraint, pouring emotion into a few key phrases, just as Jones did on his 1983 hit—one of Jones' standards that define what many country fans today consider as classic country music. Womack's voice is just as effective and just as good at conveying the combination of pain and strength that the lyrics ask of her.
Likewise, the musical arrangement provides a good example of how Nashville can update country traditions without losing their emotional heft. Just as Jones' producer Billy Sherrill blended steel guitar and country chord progressions with orchestrated strings and elegant piano, producer Tony Brown and Womack use a similar mix of old and new elements to create something powerful and fresh.
The same holds true throughout Womack's exceptional new album, Call Me Crazy. She and her veteran producer combine traditional and contemporary ideas into spare, breathing arrangements that add nuance to the real-life dramas of Womack's well-chosen material.
Womack's love for traditional music occasionally steps to the foreground. There's the mournful fiddle solo that opens "The Story of My Life," the steel guitar that shadows her vocal melody in "Either Way," the old-school chord progression of "If These Walls Could Talk," and the laid-back Texas waltz rhythms of "Everything but Quits," her duet with George Strait.
But those are shadings. For the most part, Womack and Brown focus on gentle washes of orchestrated strings, liquid chords on pianos and electric keyboards, and dispersed rhythms that bring a sophisticated maturity to these songs. It's a combination that Womack has worked hard at perfecting, and once again she makes it work with amazing acuity.
From her introduction 11 years ago, Womack has been heralded for remembering that country music has a rich past that pre-dates the Reba/Garth/Shania revolution. Her old-school moves have won her critical favor and, at times, even commercial acclaim. But it has also led to a backlash by purists when she dares to enter contemporary territory; just as often, she's struggled with radio programmers, who have sometimes embraced her and sometimes let her stumble.
Womack understands as well as anyone the difference between traditional country and what she does. The older style still flourishes today, even if country radio ignores it. Sunny Sweeney, from Austin, resembled a young Womack on her Big Machine Records debut. More pointedly, Houston's Amber Digby and her band, Midnight Flyer, create Southwestern dance-floor country with all the gusto of a foamy head of beer. Her new album, Passion, Pride and What Might Have Been, is the place to go for those who think good country music ended when Ray Price stopped recording shuffle rhythms.
But Womack strives to make country music that acknowledges the past without living in it, just as Jones did in the '70s, George Strait in the '80s and Alan Jackson in the '90s. That's why she moved from Texas to Nashville—just as Digby, a Nashville native, moved to Texas to sing her kind of country.
All of which underscores what a minefield the term "traditional" can be. As with "punk" among rock fans, "organic" among health-food enthusiasts or "family values" among conservatives, the term is aimed specifically at those who seek it out. But, as any marketing whiz will attest, code words that draw passionate responses can repel as well as attract. Attach the term "traditional" to a song, and a big-time country radio programmer will respond the same way a gay couple would to a politician espousing a "family values" platform.
Lee Ann Womack appreciates the term's double-edged nature. Now that Patty Loveless no longer records for a major label, Womack represents the most tradition-friendly female artist still likely to get played on corporate country radio. But the dilemma this presents has surfaced repeatedly through her career.
She first drew attention by releasing several of the most hardcore country songs to reach radio in the '90s, including the ballad "Never Again, Again" and the sassy "I'll Think of a Reason Later." But she achieved her greatest success when she shifted toward the contemporary in 2000 with the award-winning hit "I Hope You Dance." She also weathered her biggest career letdown with her most strident pop-country move, the 2002 album Something Worth Leaving Behind.
Since then, she's concentrated on finding a way for tradition-based music to fit into modern country's pop-flavored format. Call Me Crazy certainly succeeds creatively—let's hope radio sees the potential for these songs to bring a needed depth to the format as well.